For Yankees legend and Hall of Famer Derek Jeter, winning is what mattered most

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Derek Jeter Hall of Fame presser
Derek Jeter Hall of Fame presser

Derek Jeter fell in love with the idea of playing shortstop because his father, Charles, manned the position on the baseball team at Fisk University in Nashville. Jeter tried the outfield after boasting to his father that it seemed easy, but was humbled by a few fly balls and stuck to short and that went on so long he never appeared at another defensive spot in the Major Leagues.

In fact, Jeter joked Thursday, his dad may have been the last coach to put him at another position -- second base and third base -- way back when Charles Jeter was coaching one of his boyhood teams.

Jeter’s defense figures to be one topic next week when the Yankee captain is inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown as part of the Class of 2020. The ceremony was postponed last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jeter, a 14-time All-Star who is sixth all-time with 3,465 hits, was a tremendous Yankee - a former captain who was on five World Series champions. He was a winner, a leader and an unquestioned offensive star.

But his defense was sometimes a target of criticism. He authored memorable defensive highlights, such as the Flip Play in the 2001 postseason and the bloody dive into the stands against the Red Sox in 2004, and he won five Gold Gloves, but he was never a darling of the emerging analytics designed to measure fielding.

Thursday, on a conference call with reporters, Jeter was asked about his glovework several times. Here’s hoping he addresses the topic in his Induction speech, because his answers were telling.

“I prided myself on being consistent,” Jeter said. “When a play needed to be made, I felt like I was going to make it. I’d argue that my teammates had confidence in me making the plays as well.

“I don’t think it’s possible to have that much success as a team if you have someone who is just so poor on defense.”

Fair point, Derek. It’s almost as if he were echoing something Yogi Berra used to tell him, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Jeter also noted that it was “probably fair” to say his last year (2014) on defense “probably wasn’t as good as the middle of my career.” As he also said, he played his first game at short in the majors at 20 and the last at 40. “You probably slow down a little bit,” Jeter said. “That’s what’s supposed to happen.”

Next Wednesday in Cooperstown ought to be a nice celebration of Jeter’s career. Yeah, he runs the Marlins now, but he spent time Thursday talking about how much, when he was playing, he wanted his legacy to be that he was a Yankee. He’s added to the list now, with his duties in Miami, as well as his charitable endeavors, including his Turn 2 Foundation.

But it’s clear that the Yankees still mean a great deal to him. He talked about how he did not take being Yankee captain lightly and that he did most of his work in that role behind the scenes, particularly when he had something to say to the team.

He unearthed a great nugget about Berra, noting that teams in New York are judged mostly by winning. That, Jeter said, made the Yankees’ Old-Timers Day a special event.

“Guys come back and they remember you if you win,” Jeter said.

Berra would go to Jeter’s locker and “remind me of how many rings he had.”

The answer is 10.

Jeter would respond by saying that it’s more difficult in today’s game, since there are so many rounds to get through in the Postseason.

“You can come over to my house and count the rings any time you want," Berra would reply.

Hopefully, there’ll be more tidbits like that in his speech, which, by the way, is not quite done yet, even with the extra time to prepare.

“I’m still going through the process right now,” Jeter said with a chuckle. “I haven’t finished...It’s something I wanted to take my time with. Didn’t want help, didn’t want anyone to see it.

“I’ve had to address crowds. Closing Yankee Stadium. I’ve done that before. But this is a little bit longer, 10 to 15 minutes. It’s hard to cover your entire career in that short a period of time. I’m still working on it.”

Maybe he’ll include something on the state of today’s game. Jeter believes “there needs to be a little bit more action. When fans come to the game, they want to see things happen. Unfortunately, at this point in time, there’s a lot of times during the game where there’s not a lot of action.

“Some of the rules, I do like -- the runner on second base in extra innings. Every sport changes and evolves over time and baseball’s at the point where they’re making some adjustments as well.”

Jeter has not been visualizing what his Induction will be like, he said. He’s only been to Cooperstown as a kid and when Mariano Rivera was inducted in 2019.

“As strange as this may sound, I’m trying not to think about it,” he said. “I want to experience it...I’m looking forward to getting up there, seeing the museum, meeting the Hall of Famers, spending time with them, the ceremony and the speech.

“I’m trying to keep it out of my mind. I want to go there with no preconceived notions. I want to experience it and try to enjoy it.”